This Week in History


Canada's First Railway

For the week of Monday July 18, 2011

On July 21, 1836, Canada’s first railway was inaugurated. Called the Champlain and Saint Lawrence Railroad, this railway linked the Quebec towns of La Prairie, on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, and Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, on the west shore of the Richelieu River.

Railways first appeared in England’s mines at the beginning of the 17th century. Slowly, a few railways were established to transport quarry stones. During the 1830s, this form of transportation was revolutionized by the invention of the steam engine. Very quickly, Canadian politicians and businessmen realized the potential of building a railway in a vast country where roads were not highly developed and waterways were frozen for up to five months a year.

The first railway in Canada                      (Champlain and Saint Lawrence Railway)
© Library and Archives Canada / C-003295

In 1832, Peter McGill, president of the Bank of Montreal; Jason B. Pierce, a New Englander; and John Molson, a Montréal brewer, founded the first railway company of Canada to create a railway line linking the St. Lawrence River and the Richelieu River. This line also represented a viable alternative for trade when river navigation was difficult. Construction only began in 1835, however, when the promoters had collected enough funds to undertake the railroad project. By the end of the year, most of the construction work was completed.

In the meantime, a steam engine was ordered from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England. This famous engine, the Dorchester, arrived in Montréal in June 1836. The following month, the first railway was finally inaugurated, making Canada's entry into the railway age.

Lower Canada’s Governor General, Lord Gosford, and politician, Louis-Joseph Papineau, were among the first passengers. This little railway that transported passengers but not goods because of the cost, was a big success. Many local railways appeared here and there, but it was only in the 1850s that the major railways were constructed upon which the country was built.

In 1925, Canada’s first railway was designated as an event of national historic significance and a commemorative plaque was installed at Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu four years later.

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